Maggie Gyllenhaal rapped Hollywood last week by revealing she was turned down for a role as the love interest of a 55-year-old leading man because she was "too old." She is 37. Her experience frustrated and surprised many, and we wanted to know just how typical it is of the way Hollywood really works.
A woman's sex appeal sunsets on Sunset Boulevard in remarkably shorter time than its genetic reality, and Gyllenhaal's story is part of a trend of female leads disappearing from romantic roles in top box office films after the actors turn 30.
The average age of a romantic female lead is about 30
In a review of the top-grossing romantic films since 1978, among the two primary romantic subgenres (comedies and dramas) the average age of female leads is about 30:
Only a handful of actresses over 30 played romantic leads in these films, and usually as older seductresses of young men. And if they're women of color, forget it.
Mrs. Robinson was actually 36 years old
On the big screen, women go from Lolitas to Yentes so fast it seems like they're living in dog years. Just 12 percent of the 100 top-grossing films last year had female protagonists, says Patricia White, chair of film and media studies at Swarthmore College:
The disparity corresponds to erroneous market wisdom that only films by, about, and targeted to men (especially young ones) make money. Films are judged by opening weekend grosses with worldwide releases now common.
Take Anne Bancroft, who was immortalized by the role of older seductress in The Graduate. In 1966, she starred in John Ford's 7 Women. If you haven't seen it, a look at the movie's poster gives the basic idea:
A year later, in 1967, Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson, who competed with her own daughter for the affections of Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock. Hoffman wasn't even six years younger than Bancroft; the woman who played her daughter, Katherine Ross, was only two years younger than Hoffman. Perhaps Mrs. Robinson bewildered millions of people for more reasons than just social norms or sexual taboos.
The small screen is a more welcome home for older female actors than the big one
Give credit to HBO and Showtime, and television in general. They've been casting women in their late 30s and 40s as love interests for decades. White mentioned that there might be an economic factor driving the difference between television and film, in that "women have always been assumed to be TV's core market, and they've had more chances to write, produce, and carry shows."
Among those on premium cable channels now or in recent seasons: Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire), Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds), Carice van Houten and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Polly Walker (Rome), and Natascha McElhone and Heather Graham (Californication). Jessica Lange (in her 60s) and Angela Bassett (in her 50s) have played sexualized roles on FX's American Horror Story. There are other actors we could include in a longer list of examples, but it's clear from these few that television is friendlier to older women actors than film when it comes to romantic roles.
Mr. DeMille was never going to be ready, because the close-up was a charade
There are plenty of women playing leading parts in television and film, but often not in romantic roles in top-grossing films. So far, we haven't said much about the pre-1978 years. A brief review of the ages of female actors in top films since 1941 (in high regard, though not gross) comes up mostly under 30, too.
Among films that did include a female lead over 30, Sunset Boulevard stands out. Considered one of the best all time films by the American Film Institute, it debuted with 51-year-old Gloria Swanson is its female lead. The film isn't a romantic one, though; it's one in which an aging beauty of the silent cinema years refuses to come to terms with Hollywood's slow rejection of her as she aged. More than just a great film, it may also be the most realistic one, too.
As for the rest of AFI's list, it overwhelmingly features female actors who were under 30. Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca? 27. Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind? 26.
Yes, there are female actors who breached 40 as leading lovers
There are female actors who play big romantic parts past the age of 40. Susan Sarandon attracted the attentions of Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in Bull Durham at 41; Marisa Tomei, then 43, played the wife of Philip Seymour Hoffman and lover of Ethan Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. And who could forget Angela Bassett, who turned 40 the year How Stella Got Her Groove Back hit theaters in 1998.
There's a small difference in age ranges between romantic comedies and dramas. In romantic dramas, the average age of a leading lady is just under 30:
When you look at romantic comedies, the average ages interestingly skew a bit older for both men and women:
Myrna Hant of the University of California Los Angeles's Center for the Study of Women noted in an email to Vox that the Hollywood casting process is as much influenced by "tried and true stereotypes that are deeply embedded in our culture" as any other place in America.
Correction: The first chart was corrected to reflect the accurate release year of the films Hitch and Coming to America.